ETHIC Intelligence hosts its third annual international conference
on corruption prevention Standards and Guidelines

OECD Conference Centre, Paris - Monday, September 10, 2018

ETHIC Intelligence is very pleased to host its third annual international conference on Standards and Guidelines in corruption prevention on September 10, 2018 at the OECD Conference Centre in Paris. Click below to view photos and videos from last year’s event where experts from business, civil society and government exchanged and debated issues related to the fight against corruption.

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J Pozsgai AlvarezHow to think politically about anti-corruption: A crash course


Joseph Pozsgai Alvarez

International Associate

University of Tsukuba 

Tokyo, Japan 


When we think of corruption, we automatically associate the word with a state of rotting affairs, events pernicious to our health and/or that of our countries. Such images are only natural, as historically the term was first associated with the decay in moral standards and only later did it assume legal connotations. Its conspicuity in the media is a relatively recent feature, however. Since the mid ’90s corruption has become a regular feature of front pages and TV reports throughout the “free” developing world, as well as a regular topic of conversation in many industrialized nations.


Why Do People Even Care About Corruption?

The reasons for its salience are fairly easy to identify: International organizations and national leaders finally recognized the economic costs of allowing graft to run rampant, as information from Brazil is currently demonstrating. Anecdotic information and scientific research abound on this point. As a consequence, the international community has taken important steps over the past two decades to curb malfeasance in public and private life as a way to defend commerce and investment, from the unilateral efforts of the American Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) to the global and far reaching United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). The impact of the international movement against corruption can be felt in almost every single country.  But corruption is also a sort of popular event for the elite and the masses alike, and its scandalous nature commonly sends out ripples throughout the political system, demolishing careers and bringing the rise of new leaders and parties in their wake. This is the way most citizens construct their impressions on the subject and on their representatives, sometimes with much effect on elections, sometimes with little.


As much knowledge as the academic community has gathered on both the causes of, and potential solutions to, corruption, it is still a risk to assume that the academic perspective is in complete sync with reality. Corruption continues unabated in many places throughout the world despite the amount of foreign aid and technical advice provided, and particularly despite the common political discourse of leaders who enshrine anti-corruption as the core of their electoral platforms. The sharp difference between expectations and reality begs a simple but powerful question: Why does corruption continue, unaltered, unfaltering?


The Anti-Corruption Dilemma

As early as the 1980s Robert Klitgaard gave ample thought to the magnitude and complexity of implementation embedded in the anti-corruption idea. Considering the variety of activities and instruments that could be adopted to fight corruption, Klitgaard suggested that it would be inefficient to invest resources in all of them without considering the relative impact they potentially offered, and realized that “the ideal level of anticorruption efforts will be short of the maximum, [while] the optimal level of corruption will not, in practice, be zero.” That is, corruption could not be completely eradicated without also burning the house down, although there should be an equilibrium point between anti-corruption and efficiency. This is the realm of economics and organizational studies, of course.


Going beyond Klitgaard’s normative approach, however, the anti-corruption idea shows more fundamental issues. The problem with efforts to curb malfeasance are apparent to the initiated: If leaders, who are the ones charged with the task of adopting and carrying out anti-corruption measures inside their organizations, are already engaged in illegal acts, the anti-corruption drive will not just stop short of the maximum (as Klitgaard’s tenet suggested) but will most likely stop much earlier than that. How early? Although the answer will change from case to case, we can reasonably expect political will for integrity efforts to stop when they begin to pose a threat to the interests of the leadership.


But let’s take a step back, before moving further on. Anti-corruption, just as any other government activity, does not only translate into costs, but, as it impacts on society (hopefully in a beneficial way), it also creates benefits for the government in the form of political capital. This capital, when we drop the assumption of a virtuous and devout leadership, explains in theory the reason why certain policies are adopted while others are ignored. Not surprisingly, political capital is especially important in democracies, where it has the ability to translate directly into votes and power. Therefore, Klitgaard’s idea (of anti-corruption efforts being acceptable just as long as productivity can be maintained) could be converted into a more realistic statement: Anti-corruption efforts are pursued just as long as they are politically profitable for the leadership.


The Ugly Truth

Clearly, the obvious conflict between approaches based on political capital and political will are insurmountable when we artificially leave aside the crucial weight of agency and private interests. To reconcile both positions it is necessary to accept that for an honest government, anti-corruption policies must only be attractive in direct relation to the political capital they can generate; for a corrupt government, on the other hand, anti-corruption policies should be avoided in direct relation to the interests they threaten. Thus, decisions over real life anti-corruption interventions will depend on the benefit-cost ratio of political capital and illegal profits as assessed in a case-by-case manner.


But, just how much profit can leaders earn before losing enough political support to put their positions at risk? Or, conversely, how much support needs to be fostered in order to maintain a corruption status quo? While it is not possible to give precise answers without looking at specific events, our earlier and brief description of the reasons behind corruption’s modern salience can shed light on the specific scenarios under which a political system becomes stressed by the corruption status quo, and how it chooses to respond. The model thus presented below can be properly called a “systems model of corruption and anti-corruption reform”, borrowing the style from the works of David Easton.


Pushing for Change

Corruption is an output, and as such, it impacts social actors in two different ways: public malfeasance can affect the objective conditions of the citizen, but it can also affect the way he/she perceives politics and behaves towards incumbent leaders. In the first case, corruption results in the production of material conditions that adversely affect the lives of society at large, including the international community. While these conditions of poverty and deprivation may not necessarily be openly recognized as connected to the levels of corruption in the country, they are nonetheless linked in a relation of cause and result, and so it is perfectly appropriate to say that corruption can be felt even when it is not seen.


In the second case, corruption is usually perceived through media coverage of corruption scandals (which are for the most part the only way citizens can gain knowledge of the existence of malfeasance involving senior officials and politicians). We are all familiar with them; we just need to open a newspaper on any given day to find corruption screaming at us from the printed pages. What is less obvious, however, is the shared nature of the economic problems confronted by our societies and those scandals that enrage us: While producing different levels and forms of popular dissatisfaction and protest, both situations are the consequence of corruption in the system, and both challenge the leadership by reducing the amount of political support that keeps them in power.


The third scenario of stress for the political system comes in the form of external disturbances: These are events which take place in national and international society and modify the level of corruption tolerance among its members, producing new patterns of behavior and organizational arrangements. The FCPA and the UNCAC are obvious examples, best manifested by the impact of the international anti-corruption movement on national legislation. By reacting to the persistence of underdeveloped integrity systems, any decrease in external corruption tolerance tends to increase the level of stress over local leaders, influencing popular approval, diminishing political support, and threatening the corruption status quo.


Leaders Push Back

While all three scenarios represent a challenge to government stability due to the presence of corruption in the country, each one of them embodies a different set of wishes, anxieties and demands from society, and thus they are met with different responses. Straightforward strategies under each scenario will include the provision of subsidized goods or the adoption of market reforms to boost a corruption-damaged economy; the swift prosecution of corrupt bureaucrats or the creation of special investigatory commissions to address scandals; and/or the production of new anti-corruption legislation to comply with international conventions.


What do all these measures have in common? Regardless of their normative benefits and potential, they are also vulnerable to symbolic adoption and political instrumentalization, becoming in such situations mere coping strategies rather than real anti-corruption measures. For honest leaders, either case provides short-term political capital; for corrupt leaders, only the latter approach secures the stability of the status quo in regards to illicit gains. This is the tragedy (and the explanation for the common failure) of anti-corruption implementation.


In short, different politically stressful scenarios caused by corruption do not only require different approaches from the government, but they also offer leaders different ways to harvest support while keeping the corruption status quo in place.


With these basic premises, then, we can finally begin thinking politically about anti-corruption without taxing the forces of reform with unnecessary cynicism. We do this by honestly and clearly reflecting on political channels in a way that not only accepts, but embraces, the tenets of political capital, political will, and agency.


Joseph Pozsgai Alvarez

+81 80 4337 2367


Other works by Dr. Pozsgai:

-Pozsgai Alvarez, Joseph. 2014. “Operationalizing High-Level Corruption Tolerance in Peru: Attitude-Behavior Congruency and the 2006 Presidential Elections”, 筑波大学地域研究, Vol. 35, pp. 183-206.
-Pozsgai Alvarez, Joseph. 2015. “Low-Level Corruption Tolerance: An ‘Action-Based’ Approach for Peru and Latin America”, Journal of Politics in Latin America, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 99-129.

-Pozsgai Alvarez, Joseph. 2016. “Low-Level Corruption Tolerance:

-Concept and Operationalization”, Panoramas, February 15, 2016. <>

-Pozsgai Alvarez, Joseph. 2016. “Political Will for Anti-Corruption

-Reform: The Weight of Political Context in the Making of a National Anti -Corruption Plan in Peru”, Iberoamericana, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 63-84.


May 2017

J Pozsgai AlvarezJoseph Pozsgai Alvarez has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Tsukuba (Japan) and is currently engaged in the Daily Corruption: News Feed & Database project. He has been conducting corruption and anti-corruption research for the past eight years, starting with a position with the Corruption Prevention team of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers of Peru in 2009, and then turning full time to academia, where he explores the topics of corruption tolerance among citizens, and the politics of anti-corruption policy implementation.”

Comments (8)

  • This site and the new course presented here are the best expression of the ways in which the “corruption” and “anti-corruption” issues should be approached by scholars, academics, and faculty, that is, not only as a scientific research issue, but always connected to the perceptions citizens from various societies get on daily corruption, political corruption, bureaucratic corruption, business corruption, etc. There are so many various forms in which corruption impacts our lives wherever we live! It is worth thinking of programs similar to “Daily Corruption” in any kind of society. Faculty and researchers are the first to guide the interest of the young people studying in universities all over the world. I appreciate very much the model of approach, the course, and the anti-corruption programs you work on, and I find it a good example to follow for both faculty and all people involved in the anti-corruption programs all over the world! Congratulations, Dr. Joseph Pozsgai Alvarez!

    • Joseph Pozsgai-Alvarez says:

      Thank you very much for the kind comment. As you say, corruption has multiple dimensions and different impacts, which should lead us then to lay down research projects and intervention programs that take into account not only the specificity of each element of the phenomenon, but also their interrelation and dynamics. There are already so many organizational, national, and international assessment reports, and yet there is a critical scarcity of work on developing a cohesive and comprehensive model of analysis to bring together that vast body of data we already have. On top of that, international actors are increasingly showing aversion to investing in the development of new forms of data retrieval, which makes many assessment painfully repetitive and difficult, if not impossible, to contrast. Both conditions make anti-corruption scholarship look more accomplished than it really is, specially if we compare it to actual implementation and results.

  • Kunal Debnath says:

    Nice writing Dr. Joseph Pozsgai Alvarez. I am keen to explore why third world countries are more prone to be corrupted than West. This is political as well as ethical question. Recently I have delivered a lecture about this topic. I’ll send you my article after development of my paper on said topic. Thank you. Best wishes.

    • Joseph Pozsgai-Alvarez says:

      I’m glad to read about the topic you mention. Indeed, there is no denying that underdeveloped countries are currently, on average, more corrupt than industrialized countries. However, a similar comparison can be made regarding a battery of other variables, such as GDP per capita, educational attainment, quality of government, rule of law, etc. Corruption affects, and is affected, by those phenomena too, so why cultural issues might be a factor, it’s really difficult to disentangle them and say there is an issue of “proclivity”, be it cultural or otherwise. I believe underdeveloped countries are as corrupt as we can expect them to be given their level of development. Let’s not forget that the U.S. and England had high levels of normalized corruption until the late 19th century at least.I would be delighted to read your paper, and exchange more notes on the subject.

  • Abdul Jalal says:

    Well done Dr. Joseph ! It is such a nice article. The highlight is very touching and compatible to my country situations. I would love to read more articles on corrupt practices.

    • Joseph Pozsgai-Alvarez says:

      Thank you for the kind words. I too believe that such a model, as described in this article, can fit very well most countries, regardless of their level of corruption. What stands at the core of this argument is the role of individual agency in tilting the benefit-cost balance towards political power or private economic gains. This is the reason why, even though the styles and techniques may be different, the rejection of anti-corruption reforms incompatible with the status quo is a staple of politics anywhere in the world. I hope to keep working on these tenets to produce a more refined model in the near future.

  • I would be interested to have your ideas on what role that private civil actions against corruption might have as a source of stress in your analytic framework. Could they be more powerful than external sources of stress like the FCPA and the relevant conventions? Some basic notions on this area can be seen in my article on the subject and in some of the cited sources in that article entitled Private Civil Actions: A Tool for a Citizen-led Battle against Corruption. Copy and paste this link for more:

    • Joseph Pozsgai-Alvarez says:

      Thank you very much for sharing your article. You touch a very important area, which keeps developing: The role of the private sector in bringing in national anti-corruption reform. While the end result of such efforts depend on the type and amount of pressure, skills of those exerting the pressure, and the governmental response and its available political capital (variables that need to be measured case by case), I do believe that, in general, private civil actions should more effective than most international strategies due to the degree of flexibility of the former. That being said, private civil actions require a certain level of independence of the judiciary, which makes international civil actions more feasible than their national counterparts, at least in underdeveloped countries. Thus, it is the synergy between local and international actors which will give us the highest degree of pressure over corrupt governments.

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